Is Your Ad Complete Bullshit? Try This Simple Test.

Your Bullshit Laboratory

Most of us grow up with pretty finely tuned bullshit detectors. The thing is, this technology is getting better every day.

In fact, over the years, I think bullshit-detection technology has more than kept pace with computer technology, to the degree that kids today have BS detectors picking up readings as low as one-part-bullshit-in-a-million.

Interestingly, many of these same kids – these wonderful cynical rebels – will, when asked to create advertising, revert quickly to bullshit. They aren’t stupid. They’ve simply grown up listening to all the horrible advertising out there and, hey, when you grow up in France, you speak French.

This is why I ask beginning students to forget every single thing they think they know about advertising and keep only their disdain for most of it. I ask them to be honest and to just talk. Yes, I want them be interesting, to be funny, or dramatic, but to just talk; not bullshit.

As a test, I give students this process, one they can apply to their own work to see if it qualifies as bullshit.

Pretend you’re sitting next to some guy at a bar and you’re talking about the product you’re advertising which, today, let’s say it’s some chain restaurant. And this guy asks you, “So, tell me again why I should go to this place?” You take a big slug of beer, look ‘im in the eye, and you say….

“The flavors of ancient Italy will tantalize your nose and suddenly you’re in Rome.”

This is where he slugs you.  > POW! <

You’re on the floor lookin’ up wondering what just happened. Well, what happened is you decided your bar buddy was an idiot and he’d believe any insipid, bullshit cliché you come up with.

So, that’s my little test.

Look your best friend in the eye and speak your message. Can you say it with the same authenticity and unadorned honesty as you would tellin’ her what the weather is?

If you can, you’re not advertising. You’re just tellin’ someone about this cool thing you heard about. And what’s wrong with that?


  1. Luke-
    Just wanted to let you know I will be printing and sharing this with my Miami Ad School writing class this week. Another quick ‘n easy way to making writing ads a little more digestable and teachable. Thanks. Also – Thanks for keeping me up til 1 AM last night reading your new book. Having grown up in Roch. with a father working for great Mayo clinic it really hits home. It’s heartbreaking and wonderful. And it’s put raising only 3 little boys in perspective. Wow! Thanks for sharing your story with us all. I look forward to finishing it tonight.
    Sage Rider

    • Yo Sage: Thanks so much for sharin’ it. Glad you like.

      • Plus, since it’s a writing class, I really think you are short-changing them if my new book, THIRTY ROOMS TO HIDE IN, is not assigned reading. No writer should suffer the deprivation.

    • Hi Luke,
      This is a great reminder. Thanks. You do good work.

  2. Luke,

    When I was gainfully employed in the world of advertising my acid test was simple: if I had the nerve to tell a friend (outside of advertising) what I was working on without embarrassment, I was confident I had something that was not bullshit. This did not happen very frequently. As I look back, the majority of my work was bullshit. As a consequence, I spent a considerable amount of time attempting to hide the fact that I was involved with a lot of this despicable work. To finish up this thought, I was always amazed when people would boast about some work that was clearly fucked up bullshit. I won’t name names.

    Bullshit Artist GJ

  3. This may be inappropriate, but have I told you lately that I love you? Did a spit take – but a thoughtful one. Thanks for the fab litmus test. Will be sure to share this gem!

    • I am reporting your inappropriate remark. To whom, I don’t know. But it’s going on the record, Missy.

      And I love you too. We musta known each other in another life.

  4. what if the product you are supposed to be advertising IS bullshit? “It’s a blender. It blends stuff.” authenticity and unadorned honesty isn’t going to cut it.


  5. the difference, I think, is between whether you’re trying to communicate, or whether you’re trying to sell. If you’re trying to sell something, there’s an inherent manipulation and deceit involved. Obviously all advertising is trying to sell something, but my point is that the mode of language we use changes in context. As a consumer I’m happy when Apple tells me in a conversational voice about the new thing they’ve made that looks nice and makes my balls tingle with excitement, they dont’ need to bullshit me. The only people who need to bullshit me are people who are selling something I don’t really want. So, what are we to do, then, when as creatives we’re charged with the responsibility of trying to sell something that’s a bit crap, or that someone probably doesn’t really want or need? When I’ve been in this situation and I’ve used a more conversational, natural language that makes the product seem more authentic – such that my bar buddy might buy it – I feel even worse than if I’d employed the use of some cheesy cliché. The trick, it would seem, is to only work on genuinely good products and brands that consumers actually want to consume – otherwise we’re just adding to the bullshit no matter how we frame it.

    • Hey Jesse: Thanks for writing. I get what you’re sayin’ but I disagree that selling anything means there is “inherent manipulation and deceit” involved. I don’t think selling requires the absence of an agenda, just transparency; admitting that you do in fact have an agenda. And with today’s savvy customers, they KNOW that already. They get it. And selling something is okay.

      You also say “the only people who need to bullshit me are those selling me something I do not want.” You sound like a smart guy Jesse and so would you really be fooled by bullshit? If you don’t want something, it seems to me the least effective approach possible would be bullshit, or making false claims, or doing ANYthing misleading.

      Oh well, thanks for writing. I love talkig about this geeky stuff that no one else in the world cares about. What is WRONG with us? : – )

      • oh goodie, a debate with one of my idols! (though one of the things I like most about you, Luke, is your humility – so that’s an odd counterpoint isn’t it?)

        To be clear, I don’t think selling ‘anything’ has an inherent manipulation; rather the delineation is between communicating something and ‘selling’ it. When I do work for a company that makes really nice products, I might use exaggeration or whatever to sell the product benefit, and I feel totally okay with that. But when I’m doing work for, say, a company that preys on people with bad credit rating to ‘rent’ them goods such that they end up paying 5 times what they would have paid for it if they could get credit, it doesn’t seem ethically equivalent to me.

        The problem is that I am expected to employ devices and language that mask the reality of the situation, leverage the target market’s lack of education and awareness, and attempt to manipulate them into buying something (or signing something) that’s really not in their best interests.

        Sure, we can take the whole libertarian approach and say that it’s ‘their choice’ and ‘buyer beware’; but I think it’s a little convenient to be so black-or-white about it. I recognise that whilst much of what I do in my job is a healthy aspect of a free market economy, there’s parts of it that are also a bit dirty and perpetuate waste, consumerism, and insidious and exploitative things too.

        That old Bernbach chestnut that great brands speak softly is telling, but I’d go one further to say that great products CAN speak softly. If a mediocre product’s brand speaks softly, it’s going to fail. But if it has an annoying jingle that plays ad nauseum, it might just eek out enough brand recall to survive on a supermarket shelf and keep better products with more paltry marketing budgets away.

        In answer to the second part of your post, the honest answer is that I have been taken in by bullshit. Or perhaps what’s more accurate is that I recognise that I’m affected, to some extent, by all advertising that I’m exposed to – for both good products and bad, the ones that speak softly and the repetitious loud ones. The thing is that I’m not thinking critically and evaluatively most of the time – I try to, but I don’t (no one does, really). I only realised long after I’d bought a VW Golf that one of my favourite spots is a VW spot called ‘Night Drive’ – probably a bad example because it’s a great ad for a great product, but the point is that I’m affected by things without being conscious of them.

        Luke, I can’t recommend enough to you the most insight-dense book I’ve ever read. It came from a blog site at and what’s quite brilliant about it is that it categorises our many cognitive biases in conversational and entertaining language.

        We all like to think that we’re not fooled by bullshit, but we are all the time – we bullshit ourselves and we believe things that are convenient for us to believe that others tell us. And sometimes when a magazine ad is telling a teenage girl that she’ll feel beautiful if she uses this product, or a tv spot is telling a religious nutbag that the opposition party are socialists, it plays to their fears and prejudices and makes the world a less nice place.

        Advertising isn’t good or bad, it’s just a thing. What we do with it, though, matters. It’s part of the society we create.

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Luke Sullivan

Author, speaker, and ad veteran available to recharge, reinvigorate, and refocus marketing, advertising, and branding firms.

I give a hugely energetic series of presentations on innovation, creativity, branding, and marketing. I spent 32 years in the trenches of advertising (at agencies like Martin, GSD&M, and Fallon) and I’ve put everything I learned into my book, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. But for me nothing beats taking the message out and speaking to living breathing audiences at clients, agencies, and conferences. You can book me on the button below.